You be the judge

Few people know they can just turn up tp watch proceedings in their local criminal court. But a day in the public gallery is a fascinating way to get a glimpse of a 1,000-year-old legal system

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It’s a busy morning at Minshull Street Crown Court in Manchester. Most of the morning sessions get started at 10.30am and by 10.45 a group of young men in tracksuits emerge from one of the courtrooms, grinning from ear to ear.

“No tag!” one shouts in excitement while his friend puts his arm around him. “We’re going out tonight!”

The defendant’s barrister is in earshot, and she has a word of advice for the group of friends before they embark on their celebrations. “Just don’t get him arrested, please.”

It’s a jovial scene and brightens up an otherwise formal atmosphere as barristers pace through the court foyer with folders in hand. The inner workings of the courtroom are something many members of the public only get to see on crime dramas, or if they are called up to do jury service, but in fact most cases in UK courts are open to the public, and today I’m popping in to watch a few as they get under way.

Contrary to what many TV dramas would have us believe, the day-to-day goings on of the courtroom tend to be quite restrained. Nothing adds dramatic effect like the furious bang of a judge’s gavel, but in fact UK judges do not have gavels, nor have they ever, and it is quite unusual to see prosecutors and defence lawyers shouting over each other too.

Temple’s ex-partner is no longer his ex and is here to support him as he stands in the dock

An open court is a vital part of democracy. In being able to watch the legal process take place we can be assured that our justice system is not carried out behind a veil of secrecy. In 1913 the law lord Lord Atkinson said: “The hearing of a case in public may be, and often is, no doubt, painful, humiliating, or deterrent both to parties and witnesses, and in many cases, especially those of a criminal nature, the details may be so indecent as to tend to injure public morals, but all this is tolerated and endured, because it is felt that in public trial is to be found, on the whole, the best security for the pure, impartial, and efficient administration of justice, the best means for winning for it public confidence and respect.”

In courtroom two, Andrew Marlow stands in the dock charged with breaching a community order. In a previous appearance Marlow had been handed 160 hours of unpaid work, but he is accused of completing just six hours and 40 minutes since, so he has been pulled back in to face His Honour Judge Driver QC. Sounds straightforward enough, except Marlow has not notified his solicitor of his appearance today, so his case has to be adjourned for a week. Before Marlow leaves the courtroom Judge Driver gives him a stern warning, telling him it is possible that the judge who sees him next week could send him to prison, so he advises him to arrange legal counsel as soon as possible.

Interestingly the next defendant on Judge Driver’s list has also turned up without legal representation. Jake Lloyd-Williams is due to be sentenced for breaching a suspended sentence on two occasions, yet he has turned up without his lawyer, so he is given an extra week before his case resumes.

Quite mundane so far, but then enters Leighton Temple, who is due to be sentenced after pleading guilty to cultivating cannabis, extracting electricity and breaching a restraining order against his ex-partner on two occasions. The problem is the ex-partner is no longer
his ex, and in an interesting turn of events she is here to support him as he stands in the dock.

The court hears how Temple has an “appalling record against women” after serving two prison sentences for assaulting two partners. He is also receiving treatment for mental health and has been assessed as possibly having a borderline personality disorder.

In October last year police found 22 cannabis plants belonging to Temple, with a street value estimated to be between £4,140 and £6,900. To his credit Temple pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity, and his barrister Rachel Shenton highlights the point that the farm was not a successful enterprise, and the yield was lower than expected. Driver however points out that Temple has previously received a caution for cultivating cannabis and, at the age of 31, he has 15 convictions for 25 offences.

In her closing statement, Shenton points out that Temple’s victim and now partner got in touch with him to resume their relationship after the restraining order had been imposed by the court. She pleads with the judge not to send Temple to prison, mentioning that his mother has recently died and his stepfather is going through treatment for prostate cancer.

But Judge Driver points out that the restraining order imposed on Temple was a court order, and it is not up to his girlfriend or him to defy an order of the court, regardless of whether they decide to resume their relationship. Temple is handed an immediate prison sentence: four months for the cultivation of cannabis, one month for extracting electricity, and two months for breaching the restraining order. The sentences for the cultivation of cannabis and extracting electricity will run concurrently, meaning they are essentially bundled up into one sentence and served at the same time, while the two month sentence for breaching the restraining order will be served separately, so it is a six month sentence in total, with Temple likely to serve three months in prison and three months on licence.

Emotions run high in the courtroom as Temple’s girlfriend stands up and calls the judge a “scumbag”, while Temple tells him he hopes he “dies on the way home”. It is Judge Driver’s last case of the day, and he orders Temple’s girlfriend to leave the court while the probation officer is instructed to take Temple down to the cells. A dramatic end to a quiet morning.

A day spent in the public gallery of any court can be a fascinating way to pass the time. When you see a judge or magistrate sitting in court, you are looking at the result of 1,000 years of legal evolution, and it is a chance to catch a glimpse at how our judicial process is carried out.

But if you are interested in watching court proceedings, it is important to remember a few things. You absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, take photographs or film video footage within the confines of any UK court. This includes the foyer and any café area, and it also includes selfies. This is part of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 and is enforced so that defendants, victims and witnesses are not put under added strain while preparing to give evidence or stand trial.

Before you enter the court building it is normal to have your bag searched and to walk through a metal detector. If you have a bottle of water with you, you will be asked to take a drink out of it by the security.

It sounds obvious, but it is also important to make sure your mobile phone is turned off before you enter the public gallery. I once sat in on a court case where the judge threatened to have a journalist thrown in the cells after his phone interrupted proceedings in a high profile case. It was very scary and I think everyone in the courtroom checked their phones at least five times to make sure they absolutely, definitely, 100 per cent had turned it off. You can in fact be prosecuted for contempt of court and fined if your phone goes off, so it’s perhaps a good idea to leave it at home.

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